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Media Access to Mississippi Legislature Could Be Curtailed Under New Bills

Senate Medicaid Committee Chairman Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, asking a question
Mississippi Sen. Kevin Blackwell, R-Southaven, introduced two bills on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, that would restrict the news media’s access to the Senate floor and abolish the capitol press office in favor of giving lawmakers more office space. He told the Mississippi Free Press that the press does not need an office space “with the technology available.” AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Mississippi reporters could soon have less direct access to the Legislature’s deliberations after a pair of bills dropped in the Mississippi Senate late Friday afternoon that would bar the news media from the Senate floor and abolish the Capitol Press Office on the capitol’s fourth floor.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 511 and Senate Resolution 3, both introduced by DeSoto County Republican Mississippi Sen. Kevin Blackwell, would change legislative rules for press access if approved.

Previously, Senate Rules Section 35c read: “No person except for members of the news media with proper credentials issued by the Rules Committee may be admitted to the press table on the floor of the Senate for the purpose of transcribing the debates and proceedings of the Senate.”

If S. R. 3 were to pass, that rule would simply read: “No person may be admitted to the floor of the Senate for the purpose of transcribing the debates and proceedings of the Senate.” If approved, the press would be restricted to the Senate gallery above the deliberative body.

S.C.R. 511 goes further, saying that “to resolve inadequacies in office space for legislators and staff” it would “reallocate, equally between the Senate and the House of Representatives, the office space on the fourth floor of the New Capitol Building that is currently allocated to the press.”

Sen. Blackwell responded to a request for comment from the Mississippi Free Press in an afternoon text message. “You would be off the floor 30 minutes before session and 30 minutes after session just like everybody else,” Blackwell wrote. “You have access from the gallery.”

The senator confirmed that his concurrent resolution would eliminate the Capitol Press Office in favor of additional office space for legislators. Members of the press often use the press office to work on stories on laptops and share information on social media between floor votes and committee meetings.

“And yes, SR 511 would get rid of the press offices which are seldom used,” Blackwell wrote. “We have legislators (in) both the House and Senate, who have no offices. With the technology available no reason for (the press) to have an office.”

In 2018, then-House Rep. Robert Foster, a DeSoto County Republican, used similar language in an attempt to put the space in the Capitol Press Office up for bids. His proposed bill would have offered news media a chance to perform a competitive bidding process for the use of the newsroom and, in the absence of an “acceptable bid,” to turn the space into legislative offices. That bill died in committee.

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